The Kansas City Chiefs are on the hunt for a second consecutive Super Bowl title. If the team from Missouri can push past the talented San Francisco 49ers and get showered in confetti, it will be their third Super Bowl championship in five seasons.
It’s been an amazing run for a franchise that’s been the most dominant NFL team since Patrick Mahomes took over as the starting quarterback for coach Andy Reid in 2018.
Over the last six seasons the Chiefs are 75-24 in the regular season and 14-3 in the postseason for an overall winning percentage of .767. They’re about to compete in the Super Bowl for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
That leads us to Super Bowl 58 and an inventory of factors that can propel the Chiefs to victory. It’s been a memorable – if frustrating – season for the team and their fans, but the Chiefs are in Las Vegas and in position to write a happy ending.
1. Start fast. Make the 49ers chase the game. Kansas City put immediate pressure on opponents by scoring first in all three AFC playoff wins. Miami had no response. Buffalo fought back. Baltimore panicked and flattened out. The 49ers (obviously) are capable of making a comeback after being down. In the divisional playoff round the Niners trailed Green Bay by seven points after three quarters and won by three. In the NFC Championship the Packers were down by 17 at the half and prevailed 34-31. But the KC defense has done a fantastic job of limiting scoring this season, allowing an average yield of 16.7 points through 20 games.
If the 49ers fall behind on Sunday, the Chiefs defense is a more stubborn obstacle in a comeback bid. But if San Francisco dashes into the lead and takes control early, head coach Kyle Shanahan can use anything on his play sheet. He can transmit those running plays as much as he wants to and empower the top strength of his offense. If the 49ers can play ahead instead of playing behind, they won’t be forced into a predictable pass-first attack to catch up – and have to do it against the NFL’s top pass defense. San Francisco is 11-2 this season when scoring first in a game. One more point: Using the DVOA metric, the Kansas City defense has played at its best level in the fourth quarter this season. To win on a late comeback won’t be easy for the Niners.
2. The Kansas City defense must stop the run. The magnificent running back Christian McCaffrey is part jackrabbit, part jackhammer. A quick and dangerous runner on outside-zone plays. A tough runner in between the tackles. Among running backs with 200 rushing attempts this season, McCaffrey is sixth in the percentage of broken or missed tackles. He was No. 2 in yards after contact. Only two NFL running backs have hit the designed gap more frequently than McCaffrey. He’s second in rushing EPA. Including the postseason, McCaffrey has a league-leading 1,647 yards rushing, 18 rushing touchdowns and is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. And that doesn’t even take his receiving production into account. McCaffrey is truly special.
With McCaffrey grinding and galloping San Francisco ranked third in rushing during the regular season, averaging 140.5 yards per game. Their 27 rushing touchdowns were tied for the NFL lead.
If the Chiefs can wrestle McCaffrey down, Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagunolo can activate his blitz package to pressure quarterback Brock Purdy on the so-called obvious passing downs.
This area is a key battleground. The 49ers can do a lot of damage with a productive rushing attack against a vulnerable KC rushing defense that ranked 28th in run–stopping EPA and can be exploited. This season, including the playoffs, the 49ers are 10-1 when McCaffery rushes for 90+ yards in a game.
Given San Francisco’s excellence in running the football, this is Kansas City’s No. 1 concern going into the Super Bowl.
In the divisional playoff round, the Buffalo Bills offered a primer on how to do it. Granted, Purdy doesn’t have the breakaway, hell-on-wheels capability of Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen, but Purdy is sneaky good at spotting opportunities to take off on runs.
In Kansas City’s AFC playoff game at Buffalo, the Bills rushed 39 times for 182 yards and two touchdowns and had a huge advantage in possession time. Six of their eight possessions lasted 8 minutes or more. Five drives lasted 11 minutes or more. The Bills racked up 27 first downs. Fueled by breakout runs, Buffalo scored on four of its eight possessions including three touchdowns. The Bills scored 24 points against the Spags defense but missed a tying field goal at the end of the fourth quarter.
In two games against Kansas City this season, the Bills romped for 300 total rushing yards and possessed the ball on 60 percent of the plays from scrimmage. The Bills used formations that spread the KC defense out and opened the rushing lanes. Another team, Cincinnati, used that strategy to open a 17-7 lead at Kansas City on Dec. 31. Kyle Shanahan surely has noticed this in his game-tape studies.
3. Kansas City muscles up. The Chiefs offense must attack San Francisco’s increasingly fragile rush defense. In their last five games that mattered – which includes the NFC playoffs but excludes the final regular-season contest – the 49ers were plundered for an average of 152.6 yards on the ground. In the NFC playoffs the 49ers were assaulted for an average of 5.6 yards per carry in their wins over Green Bay and Detroit. The Packers pummeled the Niners for 136 rushing yards including 108 on 18 carries by Aaron Jones. A week later the Lions bashed and sprinted their way to 155 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Opponents have attacked the edges of the defense. San Francisco defensive end Chase Young does a poor job against the run, and edge rusher Nick Bosa can be overly aggressive in trying to get upfield in the pass rush. There are just too many gaps in the 49er defense, and first-year coordinator Steve Wilks hasn’t made the necessary adjustments. Opponents continue to take advantage of that.
Reid initiated a major change in his team’s struggling offense late in the regular season. He wanted to cut down on dropped passes and offensive line penalties by going with a steady ball-control approach.
In their three postseason wins the Chiefs averaged 30 rushing attempts and 127 ground yards per game. Isiah Pacheco got the bulk of the work, motoring for an average of 20 carries per game. Reid has powered up by increasing his use of sets that have one running back and three tight ends. It’s been an effective style that can pay off against the 49ers. But the 49ers will see something else on Sunday. More on that in a few seconds.
It’s essential for Kansas City’s offense to win on the early downs. This season San Francisco’s defense ranks 21st in early-downs success rate. That’s even more of an open invitation for the Chiefs to run it.
Question: Instead of going with two or three tight ends, will Reid use more 11 personnel on offense? (That’s one running back and three wide receivers.)
The astute football analyst Warren Sharp makes the case. The Chiefs have used a lot more perimeter runs on early downs this postseason. And when Reid uses the 11 personnel, they’ve averaged 6.8 yards per rush on the perimeter. It makes sense to use outside runs because the Chiefs aren’t as strong in their interior run blocking without the injured guard Joe Thuney.
Here’s the final point from Sharp: “The 49ers are at their absolute worst defending perimeter runs from 11 personnel,” he wrote.
4. Patrick Mahomes must continue being the “new” Mahomes. The new Mahomes is aligned with Reid in the change of philosophy that has alleviated the problematic issues in the team’s passing game.
Mahomes has shown his depth as a quarterback by excelling at a style of play that fits the annoying “game manager” label. One big difference: Mahomes executes it at a much higher level than a pedestrian quarterback. Mahomes is a model of efficiency but still can hit on deeper throws when needed.
Here are some of the details of Mahomes’ cold-blooded quarterback play in Kansas City’s 3-0 postseason:
* In his team’s three wins Mahomes has four touchdown passes and no turnovers.
* Per Pro Football Focus, Mahomes has not had one turnover-worthy play with his passing attempts this postseason. He’s basically eliminated the risk factor. Mahomes had a 10 percent negative-play rate during the regular season. In the postseason, the negative play rate has dropped to 5 percent.
* Mahomes has completed 68% of his passes but that doesn’t really reflect his pinpoint accuracy. In three games Mahomes has an on-target pass percentage of 81%. Sports Info Solutions categorized 90 percent of his throws as “catchable.”
* Mahomes has no ego-related issues. He is content to pick away with shorter passes. This postseason his average depth of target is only 7.0 yards – the 11th lowest among postseason quarterbacks this year. But he also has the top quarterback EPA this postseason. And he has the highest “boom” rate – pass plays that are considered very successful – at 26.7%. The smart people at Sports Info Solutions give Mahomes an exceptional 116.3 passer rating in their proprietary metric.
* Mahomes has intentionally (and within the rules) thrown the ball away 11 times in three games, the most by a quarterback in the tournament. Because of that Mahomes has only been sacked two times in 114 dropbacks this postseason. His safety-first approach has compensated for any breakdowns in pass protection. You just don’t see him holding onto the ball to give pass rushers a chance.
Instead of making hazardous throws, Mahomes is fine with the idea of punting the ball. He’s playing like a quarterback who has 100 percent faith in his team’s defense. And no wonder. The Chiefs have yielded just 15.6 points per game through 20 games – the lowest average by a Chiefs defense since Reid became head coach in 2013.
5. Make Brock Purdy uncomfortable. The postseason tells us it can be done. As I wrote earlier this week, Purdy was the NFL’s highest-rated quarterback against the blitz during the regular season. And Spagnuolo’s defense was the most effective blitzing team in the league.
The Chiefs have to disrupt Purdy. Even if they don’t sack him, the Chiefs can mess with him. Purdy was superb with the game on the line in San Francisco’s close-call wins over Green Bay and Detroit. But before the dramatic finishes, Purdy wasn’t always steady. He had problems throwing it in the rain against Green Bay. He was a little jumpy against Detroit in the first half. He was out of rhythm.
There’s statistical evidence to confirm Purdy’s physical discomfort. The Packers and Lions combined to pressure him on 35% of his dropbacks. That isn’t an awful rate, but it did fluster Purdy enough to impact his accuracy. A flustered Purdy is a less effective Purdy.
Among the 14 quarterbacks that have attempted at least 30 passes this postseason, Purdy ranks last with a catchable-throw rate of 73.8 percent. As I noted earlier, Mahomes has a catchable pass rate of 90 percent this postseason. Purdy is 13th among the 14 quarterbacks with an on-target rate of 61.5 percent. That’s 20 percent lower than Mahomes’ on-target rate.
The proprietary passer rating by Sports Info Solutions has Purdy ranked last among the 14 postseason quarterbacks. He’s also last in several other metrics: quarterback Wins Above Replacement, Points Above Replacement, and Points Earned Per Play. Purdy’s Turnover Worthy Play percentage is fourth worst among the 14 QBs. Purdy was much better in these categories during the regular season. Spags and the defense have to keep Purdy squirming on Super Bowl Sunday.
Bonus Factor: Special teams. The Chiefs have a much better kicker in Harrison Butker. Including the postseason he’s made 95.2 percent of his field-goal tries this season including 6-for-6 on distances of 50+ yards. San Francisco rookie kicker Jake Moody has an overall success rate of 80 percent this season – and that includes a 60 percent make rate (3 for 5) in the postseason.
In Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings, the Chiefs were 14th this season and the 49ers were 25th. Based on the season trends, KC has a clear advantage on the special teams … and Butker looms as a huge asset in what would be a tight Super Bowl 58.
Thanks for reading …
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb
All stats used in my football columns were sourced from Sports Info Solutions, Pro Football Focus and StatHead on Football Reference.